AS regular readers of this column will probably have gleaned, I am not a big fan of the Tory government. But that doesn’t mean I won’t say when it gets something right, hence my applause for Gavin Williamson’s recent commitment to protecting free speech at universities.

In a recent newspaper article the UK Education Secretary was impressively straightforward about his intentions: if universities in England don’t do more to defend and safeguard free speech, the Government will.

It seems strange and discombobulating that such a fundamental right, which is already etched in law, needs to be restated or protected, especially in our institutions of learning and research. After all, what are universities for if not to debate, scrutinise and test old, current and new ways of thinking?

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But the chilling frequency and virulence of recent campaigns by students and activists seeking to completely shut down conversations around certain issues highlights the pressing need for action.

And we’re not just talking any more about the no-platforming of “offensive” thinkers and speakers at university union events. Over the last months around the UK we’ve seen increasing numbers of protests and petitions against members of teaching staff who are accused of holding offensive, upsetting and inappropriate views, accompanied by calls for them to be silenced or even sacked.

There have also been calls for entire areas of teaching and academic research to be withdrawn or have funding removed, for conferences to be cancelled, all because students deem them too upsetting and offensive. University managers have sometimes been too quick to bow to pressure, highlighting society’s increasing confusion and lack of confidence in dealing with issues of free speech.

Granted, the debates at the centre of current brouhahas are complex and controversial: Israel and Palestine, gender identity and women’s rights. They are also very important. But not as important as the wider need to protect our right to talk about them. Even if you couldn’t give a monkeys about the Gender Recognition Act, the things you care passionately about could be next on the list of views deemed offensive. You, too, could be cancelled.

How could it have come to this? How could folk, especially younger folk, be so easily and willingly prepared to give away their own freedoms? Why don’t they relish countering arguments they disagree with rather than silencing them?

Social media has much to answer for, of course, not least the silos and bubbles many of us spend our digital lives in, the echo chambers that reflect our own views right back, the need for every issue to be black or white. When opposing views appear, they immediately seem shocking. Frustration ensues. Then anger. Then offence. Then hysteria.

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Such behaviour all too easily carries dangerously into real life. How long before it’s wired into our DNA?

It’s interesting that the Tories that have taken up the cause of free speech at universities. Has there been a swing towards right-wing libertarianism? Could it be to take the pressure off Boris Johnson over racist, sexist and homophobic comments he has made in the past? Both seem plausible.

Regardless of the reasoning, I welcome the action, which serves us all well in the end, especially with Labour and the SNP tied in knots over anti-semitism and trans rights, rather than focusing on the wider implications of these debates for free speech.

Mr Williamson is being clear and sensible. If universities don’t adopt strong codes of conduct that champion academic freedom and free speech while “explicitly recognising that this may sometimes cause offence”, the Government will change the legal framework to strengthen free speech and clarify the duties of institutions such as student unions.

I would like to see the Scottish Government follow this lead. Guidance currently exists for Scottish universities, produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, but recent events - not least the extreme reaction to discussion of gender identity and its impact on women’s rights - suggest it is not working.

Any focus on free speech is a reminder to all that while feeling offended is real and unpleasant, it is merely that: a feeling. Yes, feelings matter. But they don’t give anyone an automatic legal right to silence someone else.

If maturity means agreeing with something that is said, even when you don’t particularly like the person saying it, it also means accepting that the world is full of views you disagree with. Especially if you spend most of your life on social media. Some of it will be abhorrent and horrible, insulting and offensive. But that doesn’t mean it cannot be said at all.